Admission on eve of White House meeting dashes dream of Brexit benefits
Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s encounter, the prime minister made clear that he recognised a free trade agreement (FTA) with Britain was not a priority for Mr Biden, who he said had “a lot of fish to fry”.
A swift transatlantic FTA was repeatedly trumpeted by Leave campaigners, including Mr Johnson, as the biggest prize from Brexit, and the prime minister made clear on his arrival in Downing Street in 2019 that he was hopeful of a quick deal on tariff-free commerce with the then president Donald Trump.
The Department for International Trade has estimated the benefits of a deal at up to £7.7bn, or 0.36 per cent of GDP – well short of the predicted losses from EU withdrawal.
But the chances of a deal with Mr Trump foundered over UK concerns about chlorinated chicken, hormone-pumped beef and protections for the NHS, and Mr Biden’s arrival in office has pushed the prospect of agreement further into the future.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Johnson suggested that the issue would not feature prominently in his first face-to-face talks with the president since June’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
Instead, he hopes that a big announcement from the president on fresh US contributions to a $100bn climate finance package for November’s global warming summit in Glasgow will allow him to claim the meeting as a success. Mr Johnson was blindsided by a US announcement on Monday of a relaxation in its Covid rules, which will allow vaccinated Britons to fly to America.
“On the FTA, the reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry,” said the PM. “He’s got a huge infrastructure package, he’s got a ‘build back better’ package.
“We want to do it, but what we want is a good FTA, a great FTA. And I have quite a lot of experience of American negotiations, and they are pretty ruthless, the American negotiators. And I would much rather get a deal that really works for the UK than get a quick deal.”
Mr Johnson’s comments are a humiliating reminder of former president Barack Obama’s 2016 warning that a vote for Brexit in that year’s referendum would put the UK to “the back of the queue” in seeking a deal with Washington – something for which he was derided by Leave campaigners at the time.
Last September, before Mr Biden’s election, the then international trade secretary Liz Truss said that she hoped to strike a deal with the US by 1 July this year – the deadline for the US president to fast-track trade agreements through Congress.
But Ms Truss, in the US with Mr Johnson in her new role as foreign secretary, has since indicated that she does not believe any agreement will come before next year’s mid-term elections.
Despite his FTA disappointment, Mr Johnson insisted that Mr Biden’s arrival had allowed the UK to make progress on long-standing trade differences dating back to the Trump era and before.
“When we last flew out a couple of years ago, we had all sorts of pebbles in the shoe,” he said.
“But I can tell you today we’ve got the British beef ban lifted. British beef is being exported to the United States. We’ve lifted the tariffs on whisky to the United States. We’ve sorted out the Boeing/Airbus dispute that bedevilled our relations for many years, and we’ve launched a historic pact, with our Australian friends as well, which will enable the UK and US to develop a defence technology partnership and more, for decades ahead.
“That prospect brings with it the opportunity of high-wage, high-skilled jobs in the UK for decades to come.”
Mr Johnson said the UK was “at one” with the Biden administration on the fight against climate change, and on the need for a “green industrial revolution” that would deliver millions of clean technology jobs.
He said his relationship with the president was “genuinely terrific”, but was hesitant when asked if he considered himself a personal friend of Mr Biden.
“Yeah, look, I’ve only had long conversations with Joe Biden either on the phone or at Carbis Bay, and then Nato,” he said. “You know, it hasn’t been a relationship that’s been very long in gestation.
“But it’s terrific, I mean genuinely terrific. We see eye to eye on all sorts of things. Have we bonded over any particular thing? He’s a bit of a train nut, as am I. He likes trains, which is a good thing.”
Mr Johnson will tip his hat to the president’s famed decades-long train commute between his Delaware home and Washington by making the trip from New York to the US capital by rail – something that will also allow him to avoid accusations of hypocrisy on a visit that has been dominated by his pleas for action on climate change.
As well as environmental concerns, White House discussions are expected to focus on the fallout from the Aukus defence partnership with Australia, which has sparked fury in France and China, and the continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Mr Johnson described the situation in Afghanistan as “very sad and deplorable”, but said it was necessary for democratic countries to engage with the country’s Taliban rulers.
“I think it is odious that young women and girls don’t get the education that they need, absolutely odious,” said the PM.
“But I think the way forward is for us to continue to engage. I think engagement is the right thing, you shouldn’t just push people into a corner and refuse to talk to them, that never works.
“We should engage, but also set the conditions we’ve made: We can’t disburse the overseas development aid the Taliban wants – unfreeze their assets – until people can see that Afghanistan isn’t going to relapse into being a breeding ground for terror, human rights are observed, people are allowed safe passage out of Afghanistan, and the freedoms and rights of girls are respected. I know that Joe Biden shares that perspective.”